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Archive for the ‘Social history’ Category

A guest post by LH Member Laurence Scales, @LWalksLondon. 

Review: The Royal Society and the Invention of Modern Science by Adrian Tinniswood.

royal society_I possess another book about the Royal Society (RS) but it is a bit of a doorstop and more of a collection of essays. I have been surprised not to find before this moment a clear and straightforward book on its history because even my most unscientific of London Historians friends would probably put the Royal Society or, to give it its full title, the Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge on a pedestal with the label: National Treasure. Why? – because, well… Sir Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton, innit? Nice to know it’s there. Wonderful heritage, and all that.

Not many of us know why it is still here today. Is the RS a fresh flower or a crumbling fossil in the modern world? Since the late 1700s there have grown up many learned societies devoted to scientific specialisms which supplant the original role of the RS to gather knowledge from experiments and invigorate understanding of the natural world. The RS claims today that it promotes excellence in science. Few of us who are not professional scientists can judge it on this territory. It does stage some public events, outstanding among which is their Summer Science Exhibition held in their modern headquarters and then, beside the new research, you may get to see a few relics on display.

So, Adrian Tinniswood has given us something handy. Books, such as this one, in the Landmark Library series are placed in the market perhaps as a more giftable alternative to the spartan but, in my sampling, excellent Very Short Introduction series (but that series has no equivalent book about the RS). I stage my own unofficial and mildly iconoclastic Royal Society Unofficial Tour and Tinniswood has added some detail and nuance to the knowledge that, without such a book, I have gathered for myself over the years.

Tinniswood is a historian and writer without a previous track record in science history (he has previously tackled Sir Christopher Wren) but that might be an advantage for the general reader. Look what Bill Bryson (RS Fellow), neither an academic historian nor a scientist, did to popularize science with A Short History of Nearly Everything. But historians discussing science, and indeed scientists writing history, are inevitably breaking cover.

We are given some of the RS’ cultural and human back story including Francis Bacon and the ‘invisible college’ of natural philosophers, some of whom eventually founded the RS. There is a useful appendix on the founding individuals. I was amused to deduce from this book that despite the emergence of coffee house culture at this time, the early RS perhaps owed more to the beer house. London Historians members who attend its pub meet-ups may take heart.

There is a colourful chapter on experiments, and an appendix including a handful of write-ups of early experiments and curious observations like Robert Boyle’s encounter with a neck of veal which, in the absence of a refrigerator, had become luminously putrid.

One difficulty that the RS presents to our judgement is that because some individual did some good work and was rewarded by election to this club, that might just be a case of the club basking in some reflected glory. Was the RS more than the sum of its gifted fellows? The RS has been attentive to PR in its 360 years, such as when honoring Humphry Davy with a Rumford Medal for his miners’ safety lamp, as if it was some triumph of natural philosophy. George Stephenson, unschooled, less clubbable, came up with something very similar at the same time. In the distant past the RS has had its National Treasure status periodically called into question by detractors as illustrious as Jonathan Swift and Charles Babbage. Happily, Adrian Tinniswood gives us a chapter on those entertaining spats.

What did the institution achieve in its 360 years? The book has a subtitle, ‘The invention of modern science’ which could both focus us on (1) what we now know, but it should also concern itself with (2) the evolution of the process by which we came to know it. The book is compact and, probably wisely, Tinniswood does not attempt to address the first point, and he deals with the second quite briefly, dealing with the publication of the scientific record, Philosophical Transactions, but not really later improvements such as peer review. The RS did much to help to invent the scientific method, a considerable legacy, as it provides our comforts and protects us from snake oil salesmen, if we care to listen. But it took hundreds of years about it. Its first female fellow was only enrolled in 1945.

So, we have a useful, attractive and entertaining book, and not one of those rather dull administrative histories that sometimes emerge from august institutions from the pen of a devoted insider. I would like to have seen more context, comparison and insight. We had our Francis Bacon, but it was Rene Descartes who influenced the course of science on the other side of the channel. Rather than just assume that the RS’s National Treasure status is deserved, we could be told what happened in other countries and in other younger British institutions such as the Royal Institution and the Society of Arts. What role, if any, did the RS play in the industrial revolution? There we have subject matter enough to fill another book.


The Royal Society and the Invention of Modern Science, 208 pages, by Adrian Tinniswood, is published by Head of Zeus, lavishly illustrated. 

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Review: London Vagabond – the Life of Henry Mayhew by Christopher Anderson. 

lvApologies, this review is almost a year late. More overdue than this by far is a proper treatment of the life of Henry Mayhew (1812 – 1887). Thankfully Christopher Anderson spotted this sorry oversight on everyone’s part and set to the task almost 10 years ago resulting in this biography.

Mayhew was a prolific writer, most famously of his magnum opus London Labour and the London Poor (1861). That was a book derived of journalism, but ‘Harry’ Mayhew was also a begetter of comedy, satire, novel and play. In his pomp, he was as well known as his exact contemporaries Dickens and Thackeray. But ultimately – like Dr Johnson – he was remembered more or less for one work when there was so much more. Frequently impecunious, he would often complain that his early play The Wandering Minstrel attracted £200 per annum in royalties for decades after he sold the rights for £20.

punch1The one other thing for which Mayhew is well known (if at all), is as the founder of Punch magazine, in 1841. Some would add founding editor too, though this is something which some of his contemporaries dispute. Certainly, it was his brainchild, having a few years earlier also started its less successful predecessor Figaro in London, with his friend Gilbert à Becket. His relationship with Punch was short but fascinating. When moneyed, respectable owners had to be found to save the magazine, one of the conditions was that Mayhew was jettisoned; he was just too unpredictable, too much of a loose cannon: the magazine needed stability, a word nobody could associate with the mercurial writer.

A constant theme in Mayhew’s life was trouble with money. While he knew what he was worth as a writer and frequently pulled down substantial earnings, more often he was in debt, a bankrupt. He spent at least three spells in debtors’ prisons, others in the sponge house (the staging post to debtor’s prison). Self-imposed exile in Wales, Paris and Germany to avoid his creditors, the bailiffs and the law. Sometimes but not always, he was bailed out by family, friends or – humiliatingly – The Royal Literary Fund (he applied to them twice). His long-suffering wife Jane and children Amy and Athol had perforce to share these hardships. Worse, on one occasion he allowed his younger brother Gus to take the rap in the debtor’s prison on his behalf.

Clearly, Henry Mayhew was a careless man, irresponsible to say the least, amoral even. But talented, hardworking, naïve, deeply amusing and the object of devotion from a very small group of friends and admirers. He always had a plan up his sleeve to get him out of the soup. More often than not, these failed. One is reminded a little of Mr Toad.

Something of a polymath and like many Victorian men of affairs, Mayhew was deeply interested in science. A devotee of Humphry Davy and in particular Michael Faraday, he conduced many a dangerous experiments at home, primarily in the pursuit of creating artificial diamonds. Like many a Mayhew pursuit, these literally turned to dust.

I hope you can see so far that this is a lively biography which succeeds in bringing the real Henry Mayhew into our lives. We are also introduced to his rather large family of siblings, in-laws, wife and children, interesting individuals themselves, in particular brothers Horace (Ponny) and Augustus (Gus), who both became writers like Henry, much to the chagrin of their terrifying father Joshua (like Dickens, Mayhew bore a deep antipathy towards the legal profession). Ponny carved out a long and successful career at Punch while Gus frequently wrote in partnership with Henry as the Brothers Mayhew: the name was a strong brand at the time.

London Vagabond connects us to the creative world of the mid 19th Century London intellectual scene. Mayhew worked directly or rubbed shoulders with writers, illustrators, publishers, printers, actors, playwrights, radicals, Chartists; Dickens and Thackeray as we have seen, but also Douglas Jerrold, George Cruickshank, Mark Lemon, George Sala, Henry Vizetelly, Joseph Paxton and dozens more; plotting, scheming, drinking, laughing, networking. The titles for which Mayhew wrote at one time or another were almost uncountable, but the author’s meticulous research has revealed them, along with Mayhew’s improving books for children (e.g. biography of Martin Luther) and unclassifiable genres all his own. I found particularly interesting some of his late stuff on Germany: 1) Hilariously intemperate travel guide involving living among the Saxons 2) Dangerous reportage of the 1870 Franco-Prussian war – Mayhew was a fearless reporter.

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Portrait of Mayhew from London Labour and the London Poor, 1st Ed, 1851, aged about 39.

One senses that the author has read every piece of Mayhew writing he could lay his hands on, both by the man himself and other parties. He quotes substantially and frequently. I would estimate that possibly as much as 20% of the text is quotations. They are always apposite and enriching.

Sometime I hope to catch up with Mayhew’s other major London work, the Great World of London and indeed some other of his now forgotten writing which sound marvellous.

This is an excellent Life and I would warmly recommend it to all, whether established Mayhew fans like myself or indeed those coming across him for the first time.


London Vagabond – the Life of Henry Mayhew is written and published by Christopher Gangadin Anderson. 409 pp (of which 46 pp are index, bibliography, end notes etc.). It costs around £10.

 

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London Railway Stations by Chris Heather. A guest review by Laurence Scales @LWalksLondon.

rsA softly spoken subtext of this book is to show off some of the holdings of The National Archives on the theme of London’s thirteen mainline railway passenger termini and their associated hotels. So, importantly, for most of London’s wayside railway stations you will look here in vain. The history of each terminus is surveyed in order of opening. Did you know that London Bridge was the first in 1836? Of course you did.
The fact that ‘The British Government saw no need to provide an overall plan for the railway network’ will strike a chord with every experienced traveler, but it makes for a rich history and diversity in infrastructure. The author continues. ‘Each [terminus] has its own personality, and its own charm and idiosyncrasies.’ You can explore some of them in these pages.

This is not a book that is intended to be full of pictures of trains, although there are many. Some of the termini are better served by photographs than others, Liverpool Street and Marylebone being particularly light on images. There are maps, posters, letters, illustrations and advertisements here, some of which are in colour, and many are pleasingly unusual.

I regard myself as a softcore railway enthusiast. You folk who just think that trains are sometimes useful for taking you from Alvechurch to Barnstable probably have no conception what that means! The hardcore, for example, would probably want to know how the Great Western Railway’s points and crossing work was enhanced over the years since Paddington Station’s temporary predecessor was opened in 1838. What this book does, and it suits me, is to explain that the food court at Paddington, mysteriously known as The Lawn, was formerly a plot for the cultivation of rhubarb and that flowers might be picked there, though that would likely land you in trouble with the railway constabulary. If you want to know about the design of trackwork, then I am sure that there is a hardcore tome out there, not this one, that will enlighten you.

This book could well be enjoyed by the railway history completist, but would principally inform and entertain the curious Londoner who either commutes through one of these termini, or occasionally exits London for diverse points of the compass through one of its grand Victorian gateways. It aims to be interesting not encyclopaedic. Chris Heather cherry-picks historical incidents to feature. He provides a brief history of each main line and he (thankfully) highlights human interest rather than, say, the shareholdings of the principal proprietors (hardcore). George Landmann engineered the 878 brick arches which formed the London and Greenwich Railway. But whom did he buy for six bottles of rum? Enquire within.


London Railway Stations by Chris Heather (The National Archives), 160 pages, hardback, illustrated, with index.

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Book review of Bus Fare: Collected Writings on London’s Most Loved Means of Transport, edited by Travis Elborough and Joe Kerr.  (Slogan: Tourists take the Tube; Londoners take the bus).


busfare2The first thing I did with this new anthology was to scan the Contents pages for anything by HV Morton. Happily there is: a piece from 1936 in which the reporter interviews a WW1 veteran who had chucked in a promising army career to drive buses and be closer to his family. Morton, at the height of his powers, delivers a touching piece where he captures the voice of this Londoner as only he could.

Next stop, Henry Mayhew. Tick. Other literary giants between the covers of this excellent hardback include Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford. And a poem by Kipling: perfect.

Contemporary writers include Will Self, who explains why Stockwell Bus Garage is London’s most important building, and elsewhere describes the denizens of that garage’s staff canteen; Peter Watts talks about the retired ladies who travelled every bus route in London and also a piece about the ‘Boris Bus’. London Historians stalwart Matt Brown has a brace of items, one of which explains how most of our buses came to be mostly red. There are articles by former London Transport Museum virtuosi Sam Mullins (The Bus During World War 1) and Oliver Green (London Buses in Wartime). Oh, look! There is Christian Wolmar (a great supporter of London Historians, just saying) on privatisation; and Iain Sinclair, most amusingly on the modern bus driver’s lot. Editors Elborough and Kerr both chip in with items of their own.

But the book kicks off with an excellent essay by Nick Rennison on the man who introduced the London omnibus (and indeed the word ‘omnibus’ in this context) from Paris: the marvellous George Shillibeer. A former midshipman and trained coachbuilder, Shillibeer spent some time in post-Napoleonic Paris before introducing French public transport innovations to London. His first route was from Marylebone to Bank using two buses. Unfortunately, his business wilted under the pressure of instant competition and dishonest staff, leading him to two desperate spells in gaol, first for debt and then later for brandy smuggling. These are the bare bones of a fascinating life. (My own meagre effort on Shillibeer is here.)

Horse buses were ubiquitous on the streets of London in no time, providing easy fodder for journalists and satirists. The early pages of this book provide plenty of fascinating comment from the Morning Chronicle (Dickens), Punch, The Times etc. Laws, rules and regulations by necessity sprang up early on. And just as with the Tube virtually from Day One in 1863, there was much amusing comment on etiquette.

Elsewhere there is copious thoughtful, whimsical, nostalgic writing about bus travel in London. The book is, after all, a love letter to this vehicle in all its forms. The Routemaster, of course, looms large.  In this vein are the images, which are particularly well selected, complementing the text perfectly. Photos, paintings, posters, timetables, portraits. There’s a 1980 picture of co-editor Joe Kerr himself in his conductor’s uniform on the back platform of a Routemaster; harrowing images of buses caught up in the Blitz; the ‘Windrush generation’, whose very presence in London was in no small measure due to staff shortages on public transport; my favourite, though, is probably King George V raising his shiny silk topper to the No 8 to Willesden.

This is a terrific anthology which no one would begrudge tearing the paper off on Christmas morning. But it is so much more than that. Anyone with the vaguest interest in public transport or the social history of modern London, or – most of all – fine writing, will love this book.


Bus Fare, 351pp  hardcover, is published by the Automobile Association with a cover price of £14.99.

 

 

 

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The King’s Cross Story by Peter Darley. Review by LH Member Laurence Scales

71DGRy7bKQLI come to know the King’s Cross area from association with the London Canal Museum. Visits to the railway lands on foot were long confined to a bend of the Regent’s Canal. Cement dust in the eye and sounds of pile drivers were all the senses could grasp of the transformation of a vast region beyond blank hoardings. Old maps told of expanses of urban land lost to long dead trade.

The wilderness of gas holders and derelict coal yards between King’s Cross station and St Pancras is yet something to be missed. It is now a destination for cultural happenings other than spraying tags on walls and fly tipping. There is a new architectural showpiece in the repurposed coal drops and a north south axis for flaneurs. So, a new book about this area is timely. Peter Darley, known from the Camden Railway Heritage Trust and his writing about the equivalent hinterland north of Euston, has authored a very attractive one, packed with fascinating photographs and local artists’ evocative renditions of brick, bent iron and weeds. There are many old maps too but I found myself seeking clearer versions on-line.

E1 Gasholder Triplets, 1997, taken from Goods Way

The Gasholder Triplets in 1997, taken from Goods Way, Angela Inglis (courtesy of Rob Inglis).

8.2 Credit to Pope-Parkhouse Archive copy

The York Road entrance to the goods yard, c1900” (courtesy of Pope/Parkhouse archive).

4.2 BW192-3-2-2-28-137

Granary Warehouse showing two barges entering the Granary via the central tunnels, and horse-drawn carts lined up against the southern wall to receive sacks of grain via chutes, ILN 28 May 1853 (courtesy of Canal and River Trust).

This is really several different books in one. First, the railway station with attendant sheds was a world of its own, with only whistles and smoke escaping. Darley provides plenty of detail for the railway enthusiast. Then there is another world of the carmen and horses swarming around the goods yard at all hours with their coal and grain sacks, herring and potatoes. Included is an account of Jack Atcheler’s knacker’s yard adjacent. The industrial archaeologist is shown horse ramps and hydraulic capstans. As you grab sushi from Waitrose you can learn what manner of trade you might have encountered under that awning years before.

There too are the lost years of planning wrangles, the nature park and Google. This is a rich record and souvenir, not a flowing narrative. In the flip of a page we turn from Streetwalkers to Freightliner Operations. There is so much going on in the area, part now of the Knowledge Quarter, that it cannot all find a home even in Darley’s comprehensive book. I missed mention of the skip garden, inspiring community project and welcome antidote to Prêt partout.

Next time I am in the British Library reading room I shall reflect on the fact that I sit on old Somers Town goods yard. And what may take me to ferret in the library is Darley’s intriguing reference to the unloading in 1937, in another goods yard, of a putrefied whale.


The King’s Cross Story by Peter Darley, Softback, 215 pages, lavishly illustrated, The History Press, £20.

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Black Tudors by Dr Miranda Kaufmann reviewed by Robin Rowles. Both are Members of London Historians.

black tudorsBlack Tudors is quite simply, a revelation. Miranda Kaufmann’s book, very recently re-published in paperback, is a gloriously detailed examination of a little-known aspect of early modern history. In eight beautifully written chapters we hear about Jacque Francis, commissioned to undertake salvage operations recovering equipment from the Mary Rose – and an ambitious plan to raise and refloat the vessel. That didn’t happen until 1982 and the Mary Rose wasn’t refloated but became a star attraction at Portsmouth.  However, it was a big idea for the age. Another big idea was sailing around the world, something never before attempted by the English. Francis Drake achieved this feat between 1577 and 1580 and along the way acquired a black crewman, Diego, who earned his ‘ticket’ by alerting Drake’s crew to an ambush. The replica of Drake’s ship, the Golden Hinde, now sits in dry dock near Southwark Cathedral and to twenty-first century eyes, it’s a wonder the vessel ever went to sea, let alone sailed round the world.

This book is full of previously little-known characters who in their way, made their contribution to history, like John Blanke, the black trumpeter to both Henry VII and Henry VIII (the latter was more generous with salary, unsurprisingly). His image is captured in the Westminster Tournament Roll, in the College of Arms. This is both rare and informative. Whilst on duty, dressed in his ceremonial livery, John Blanke would have looked all but identical to his fellows. His external appearance almost hid the fact of his African origin. This is the nub of Dr Kaufmann’s book. There were many black people in early modern England, but references to them as black, is fleeting. Their stories, like that of Reasonable Blackman, the silk weaver of Southwark, have somehow been submerged in the sands of time. Thanks to Dr Kaufmann’s meticulous research and flowing prose, their narrative has been unearthed and restored to its rightful place in history.

john blanke 500

John Blanke, back row, middle.

Like all good histories, Dr Kaumann’s examination of minutiae is expertly woven into the larger backstory. The result feels like a splendid retelling of ‘known’ Tudor history, the insertion of the stories of black people into the larger narrative is somewhat overdue and very welcome addition to studies of the period.

Black Tudors has recently been re-published in paperback by Oneworld.


Robin Rowles, a long standing member of London Historians, is also a qualified City of London Guide and Sherlock Holmes enthusiast. 

 

 

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Review: Trico: A Victory to Remember. The 1976 Equal Pay Strike at Trico Folberth, Brentford. by Sally Groves and Vernon Merritt.


9781912064878_200x_trico-a-victory-to-rememberThe current dispute of women council workers in Glasgow over equal pay reminds us of the long road travelled since the famous Match Girls’ Strike in East London in 1888. Just as famous is that of the women Ford upholstery workers of Dagenham whose successful dispute of 1968 got made into a movie years later.

Less well-known but no less hard-fought was the strike of women workers at Trico Folberth (will refer as ‘Trico’ from here) of Brentford in 1976. It lasted 21 gruelling weeks.

This book tells that story.

Trico was – and is – an American manufacturer of car accessories, primarily windscreen wiper blades and the associated water pumps and motors. Their UK-based factory which supported car manufacturing for both domestic and international production was based on the Great West Road at the eastern end of Brentford’s ‘Golden Mile’. Today the enormous GSK complex dominates its former site.

The enabling legislation which led to this dispute was Barbara Castle’s Equal Pay Act, 1970 which came into effect at the end of 1975. Put simply, it legislated that men and women should receive identical pay for the same work. While many companies complied with the legislation, many did not. The Act, as Sally Groves points out, was riddled with loopholes which company lawyers throughout the country skipped through with consummate ease. Trico fell into the category of company which thought all of this could be ignored by dint of its male and female staff working almost completely apart.

Trico was a 24 hour manufacturing operation where men worked night shifts and women through the day. Never the twain would meet until in 1976 the night shift was cancelled, some men laid off with the survivors joining the women on the day shift. With this the pay discrepancy between the sexes soon became apparent, something that took the women workers completely by surprise. The consequences soon took the management by surprise too.

Negotiations between union representatives and management took place but led nowhere. On the afternoon of 24 May, at a union mass meeting in a nearby park, approximately 400 women production workers voted for all-out strike. They picked up their belongings from the factory and went home. Virtually none had ever struck before and most of them expected to be back at work in a matter of days.

P-009 John Bracher addressing strikers in Boston Manor Park Eric Fudge standing middle background with bucket. Morning Star, courtesy Bishopsgate Institute_500

Strike meeting in Boston Manor Park. Courtesy Bishopsgate Institute.

This is where the real story begins. It should be noted that about a  hundred men also came out in support. The remainder – including some husbands and boyfriends – stayed on, keeping the factory ticking over. It was to be the single women in particular who felt the most hardship in the following months.

From here we find out how these green strikers grew in determination and experience. Author Sally Groves, who became the workers’ press officer, admits they were virtually clueless at the beginning. But support for them grew in the trade union movement, among local Brentfordians and others, and their cause soon spread from the local press to national media.

P-012 Sally Groves' banner on Trico railings. Morning Star, courtesy Bishopsgate Institute_500

Sally Groves’s homemade banner on the railings at Trico, Morning Star. Courtesy Bishopsgate Institute.

P-030 Trico strikers lobbying TUC Brighton, Source unknown_500

Trico strikers lobbying TUC Brighton. Source unknown.

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On the march.

At the centre of this story, though, is friendship and solidarity. Previously black and white and brown workers didn’t really hang out together: now they did – lifelong friendships were forged. There are dozens of vignettes, heartwarming, sometimes sad but often amusing which, added together, led to final victory on 15 October when the strikers voted to return to work after Trico management agreed to all demands.

Joan Bakewell postcard 1st side without address_500px

Kind permission of Joan Bakewell, DBE.

The reasons this book succeeds so wonderfully are many. First, I believe, is that while both authors were directly involved in the strike, their contributions are some forty years apart. Vernon Merritt’s original manuscript had lain untouched since when he left it in the dispute’s immediate aftermath. By contrast, Sally Groves has completed the job very recently. This has given the whole a very inperceptible yet balanced feel. Second, there are plenty of verbatim accounts of those directly involved which are separated from the main narrative in grey boxes so the work is rich in reportage, reminiscing, anecdote: those who were around in the 1970s will experience a strong tinge of nostalgia, I feel, whatever their politics. Third, dozens of wonderful photographs, cartoons, ephemera. Finally, this book is excellently designed, footnoted and indexed as every good history book should be.

Quite apart from being a wonderful read, I believe this to be an important work in the history of equality and industrial relations in this country. I commend it to you.


Trico – A Victory to Remember (238pp) by Sally Groves and Vernon Merritt was published in June by Lawrence and Wishart in association with Unite trade union. Erroneously listed as paperback by Amazon at time of writing.

A signed copy of the book will be the November book prize in London Historians Members’ Newsletter.

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